Australians warm to prime minister going khaki amid crisis

October 22nd, 2008 - 10:16 am ICT by IANS  

Gordon BrownSydney, Oct 22 (DPA) Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd needed something to give his poll ratings a pep and it came in the ghastly form of a stock market meltdown that wilted the pension plans of millions of Australians.Now, the approval ratings of the 50-year-old former diplomat, a year into his first spell as prime minister, suggest he could walk on water.

“It puts him into the 70-percent range and only one other prime minister has done that,” said pollster John Stirton, noting that only Bob Hawke, 36 years ago, was a more popular prime minister.

People tend to rally round their leader in a crisis. It’s happened to Britain’s Gordon Brown. For Rudd, as for Brown, the acclamation is particularly pleasing.

Since the November election that routed John Howard’s conservative coalition, Rudd has been pilloried for his indecision, his penchant for setting up committees, his delight in papers and panels and summits and inquiries.

“He hit the ground reviewing,” was how opposition Liberal Party luminary Tony Abbott famously put it.

Stung by the criticism he was a ditherer, Rudd morphed into a man of action as the credit crunch sent the stock market crashing.

Analysts who urged him to slap a ban on some forms of short selling of shares were shocked when he outlawed all short selling.

Those who appealed to him to guarantee bank deposits under a certain value were astonished when he guaranteed all bank deposits regardless of size.

Economists said he ought to be brave and spend a quarter of the government’s savings to give domestic consumption the kiss of life. Rudd surprised with a package of measures worth half the surplus.

Once cautious, Rudd seems reckless. One week he was quibbling over giving pensioners another 30 Australian dollars a week and the next had no qualms about parting with 10.4 billion Australian dollars of taxpayers’ money.

Rudd has taken to praising himself for decisiveness.

“I want to make sure that when we look back, that I can say to myself: it’s been tough, it’s been hard, nothing’s guaranteed, but we’ve done everything that was logically possible at the time to keep this economy as strong as possible, given the impact of the global financial crisis,” he told television viewers.

It’s all got too much for some people.

Opposition Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull, a former merchant banker with a better grasp of financial markets than anyone else in parliament, is exasperated with the studious Rudd clambering into khaki.

“He’s tried to present himself as a wartime minister with his tin hat on and bayonet fixed,” Turnbull harrumphed. “The fact of the matter is, we’re not at war. We’re dealing with a serious financial crisis.”

But the people appear mightily impressed with Rudd in military mode. Some are egging him on to pass laws limiting executive salaries and set up a bureaucracy to re-regulate the financial services industry.

But there are dangers in populist measures. When it left office in 1996 Labour had placed the country deep in deficit and it was Howard’s conservatives who built up the surplus that Rudd is now spending.

If the massive cash hit doesn’t lift the economy, it could be Rudd the spendthrift.

There is also the danger that the carefully calibrated economy that brought the country all those years of growth under Howard could be frosted by too much regulation.

Rudd’s instincts are to intercede in the market. He said this week he wanted to excise “extreme capitalism” from the economy. A clumsy intervention could come back to haunt him before he seeks a second term in an election expected in 2010.

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